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Saudi-led airstrike in Yemen kills more than 70 and wounds hundreds

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The long-running war in Yemen is back in the news. The coalition of forces led by Saudi Arabia launched an airstrike on a detention center run by its opponent, the Houthi militia. And medical groups say some 70 people died and more than a hundred were wounded. Another airstrike hit a telecommunications center, and that knocked the country off of the internet, though service has been restored in some areas. NPR's Ruth Sherlock contacted a Yemeni hospital and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Video footage shared on local media shows rescuers using their bare hands to try to free men trapped in the rubble of the collapsed prison in the city of Saada in northern Yemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

SHERLOCK: Over poor quality phone line, Ayman Hijazy, the spokesman for a main hospital in the city, tells NPR they've been overwhelmed with casualties.

AYMAN HIJAZY: (Through interpreter) testicles. This is the first time we've experienced so much destruction and so many deaths. The families of the victims are crowding the hospital entrance, and we're all in shock.

SHERLOCK: He says his hospital has 66 dead so far and is trying to treat more than a hundred injured. Detained migrants from other countries are believed to be among the dead.

HIJAZY: (Through interpreter) The hospital is not big enough to accommodate the wounded, and we're running out of medicine.

SHERLOCK: The prison was one of several locations in areas of Yemen controlled by Houthi militias that were attacked by Saudi Arabia and its allies. The Saudi coalition intervened in Yemen's war in 2015 to fight the Houthis, who received support from Saudi's regional rival Iran. Also on Friday, a strike against a telecommunications building took the entire country of almost 30 million people off the internet.

PETER SALISBURY: It does sound like this is the most intense sort of sustained period of airstrikes we've seen in quite some years.

SHERLOCK: Peter Salisbury, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, notes this escalation comes just days after the Houthis used drones to drop bombs on an oil facility and airport hundreds of miles away in the United Arab Emirates. Those strikes were widely condemned. And the UAE, who's in the Saudi-led coalition, vowed to respond.

SALISBURY: Some of the sympathy of the coalition garnered from that is really going to be spent pretty quickly if, as appears to be the case, quite large numbers of civilians are being killed in these airstrikes.

SHERLOCK: A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters they would investigate the reports of the deaths. Rights groups and members of the U.S. Congress have condemned the Saudis for airstrikes that have hit schools, wedding parties and other civilian targets. They've also criticized U.S. weapons and intelligence support to the Saudis in the war.

The Biden administration says that is now limited to defensive operations. The State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Saudi foreign minister on Friday and promised continued help against threats from Yemen but said he, quote, "underscored the importance of mitigating civilian harm."

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.